Signs at the Death of Jesus

The death of Jesus was a momentous event. It was not merely an incredible event for the followers of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew shows us that this is an event that was significant on a cosmic level. In other words the events that accompanied his death show that something incredible and earth shattering was taking place.

This evening we will look at the events (and we could even say “signs”) that are recorded in Matthew 27:45-53. We will try to “feel” the significance of these things and reflect on the meaning to which they point.


45 At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. 46 At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

47 Some of the bystanders misunderstood and thought he was calling for the prophet Elijah. 48 One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, holding it up to him on a reed stick so he could drink. 49 But the rest said, “Wait! Let’s see whether Elijah comes to save him.” (Matthew 27:45-49)

We are told that while Jesus was on the cross there was darkness for three hours from noon until 3:00 p.m. This was not the “it’s going to storm” kind of darkness. This was a deep and seemingly oppressive darkness. It wasn’t the result of an eclipse (because Passover takes place at the time of a full moon. There are no eclipses when there is a full moon. Also an eclipse happens for a few minutes, not for several hours.) This was a unique event in history.

We don’t know whether the darkness was confined to just Jerusalem or whether it extended well beyond Jerusalem. Either way, for those who were present there was an eerie feeling during these hours.

Notice something else. It appears that these three hours were silent hours. There is no record of Jesus saying anything during this time until the very end of the three hours. That is when He asked, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

If we imagine the scene, we can sense the stillness that would have taken place if suddenly the world were shrouded in darkness. Did they sense a feeling of judgment? Did they feel like God had turned His back?

So what are we to make of this? The best way to understand what is happening is to understand this as the time when Jesus was undergoing judgment for sin. The sight was so horrifying that the Father could not even look at what was happening. The darkness then was a form of judgment.

Dr. Boice writes,

What happened during those hours of darkness? We know the answer. During those hours the Son of God took the burden of our sins on himself, was punished for them in our place, and experienced such terrible alienation from his Father that he cried out at the end of that dark period, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v. 46). The darkness veiled the anguish of the Son of God while he was bearing the punishment for our sins, because it was not right for human eyes to look on him in his suffering. At the same time, the darkness cried out against the blackness of our sin and testified to the tremendous cost to God of our redemption.[1]

This is certainly hard to wrap our minds around. Jesus the Son was facing the wrath of the Father so those whom they created might be forgiven their sin. It was an act of justice and mercy at the very same time.

The cry of Jesus on the cross was not one of despair. He was not saying “I cannot take anymore”. He had been silent during the beatings. He had been silent during the ridicule. What happened during that darkness must have been far worse than anything He had experienced up to this point. He was now experiencing spiritual suffering. The Father had turned away from the Son. During this time He was taking on the punishment for all of our sin.

It was an agony that was beyond our comprehension.

Tearing of the Veil

The other gospels tell us that Jesus cried out “It is Finished” and then committed His soul to the Father. We see that reflected in these words of Matthew.

50 Then Jesus shouted out again, and he released his spirit. 51 At that moment the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.

The curtain in the sanctuary was there to protect men from God. It stood between the holy place (where the priests did their work in the Temple) and the Holy of Holies (which housed the Ark of the Covenant (containing the Ten commandments) on which a sacrifice was made once a year on the Day of Atonement. On that day, and on that day alone, the High Priest (after elaborate preparation) entered into the Holy of Holies to offer a sacrifice on behalf of the nation. All the rest of the time the curtain separated every man from God (because God is holy and we are ALL sinful).

James Montgomery Boice gives some additional insight,

The ark was a picture of judgment, for the righteous, holy God of the universe looked down on the law, knew that it had been broken and that he had to punish the people for their sin. This dramatic illustration stood on the temple mount day after day throughout the year as a constant reminder of God’s judgment. When blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement, however, coming between God and the law that had been broken, the act indicated that an atonement for sin had been made, illustrating grace. An innocent victim (the animal) had died in the people’s place, and rather than pouring forth wrath, God was now able to show grace and mercy to the people. This pointed forward to the true and final atonement that Jesus Christ would make on the cross. It pointed forward to his death, as did all the other sacrifices of the Old Testament.[2]

The curtain ripped down the middle from top to bottom at the death of Jesus. Some might say it was the result of the earthquake (the next sign). That is unlikely since the building itself was not destroyed. However, either way it was a sign from God.

What does the torn curtain mean? First it means the final sacrifice has been offered for sin. The sacrifice of Jesus was sufficient for all who would come to Him. No further sacrifices need to be made. The way to God has been opened.

Second, it signified a new status between God and His people. We are no longer enemies; we are friends. We are no longer fighting against God, we have been made new by Him. The ripped curtain was an invitation from God to enter into His presence and to be a part of His family.

Earthquake and Resurrections

The earth shook, rocks split apart, 52 and tombs opened. The bodies of many godly men and women who had died were raised from the dead. 53 They left the cemetery after Jesus’ resurrection, went into the holy city of Jerusalem, and appeared to many people. (Matthew 27:51-53)

This is a startling passage for many. Only Matthew records these events. This has led some to dismiss them as legend. However, since we are dealing with the Word of God, we read these things as actual events.

This was a major earthquake since rocks split in two. As a result of the earthquake even some of the tombs opened.

The story of godly men and women coming back from the dead leaves many questions unanswered. Who were these people? Were they people who had recently died or had they died long ago? Did they rise with resurrection bodies (like Jesus)? And if they did, how long were they on earth? Did they ascend like Jesus did? Or was this a resurrection like Lazarus (a physical resurrection that would result in them dying again)? Who did they see in Jerusalem? Why do we not hear more about this in the other gospels or in the records of history?

These are all questions we can’t answer. The account is told simply and in a manner of fact way. The tombs opened at the earthquake but the people did not come back to life until Jesus had risen from the dead. He not only had to die to make it possible for us to live; He had to break through the door with His own resurrection.

It seems that the point is clear. Because He lives, we also shall live. There was no better way to put an exclamation point next to that truth than these resurrections. The resurrection of Jesus was not some isolated event. It had a huge ripple effect. His Resurrection opened the door for all who believe to live even after they die.

This resurrection of saints was the fulfillment of the hope of these who died. They died believing the promise, but they could not be raised until Jesus had defeated sin and death. It would seem that ever since Adam and Eve the faithful were in a holding pattern until the day when Christ set them completely free from the power of sin and death.

The death of Jesus on the cross was the moment in history that all of history had been waiting for. It was the moment of redemption.

It is easy for us to take these things for granted. We sometimes fall into the trap of merely looking at the suffering of Jesus. We are moved by what He suffered. However, if we don’t see WHY He suffered and what that suffering was accomplishing, we have missed the point completely. Jesus endured the wrath that we deserved. He broke the power that death had to rob us of life. He opened the door to life beyond the grave for all who believe. It is something we must NEVER take for granted.

Responding to the Signs

In verse 54 we read,

54 The Roman officer and the other soldiers at the crucifixion were terrified by the earthquake and all that had happened. They said, “This man truly was the Son of God!”

The men on duty at the cross of Christ were experienced executioners. They had likely seen many things. As a result they had likely become calloused and somewhat unfeeling. People in those kinds of jobs have to become numb in order to keep doing what they do. But the death of Jesus shook them to the core of their being.

The darkness, the earthquake, and the behavior of the man on the cross (His words, His spirit, His resolve), touched them. It awakened in them a new fear of God. These men with no spiritual roots understood the message that was in all these signs that happened. They understood that something of great significance had happened.

Isn’t it interesting? After the resurrection of Jesus the Pharisees and Sadducees tried to cover things up. They, in essence, denied what happened. The Roman soldiers however, were moved deeply. Perhaps they even came to a place of faith in Christ. I suspect when they heard the rumors that Jesus had risen from the dead, these guys had no trouble believing it was true.

And on this Good Friday (good because it was the event that made it possible for us to be made right with God) you and I face the same choices.

We can resist the message like the Scribes and Pharisees. We can offer all kinds of alternate explanations. We could say it is all made up. We could close our ears to the testimony and stay on our merry course. We can, like the Pharisees and Sadducees deny, deny, and deny.

Or we, like the Roman officers, can bow in worship. We can recognize that what happened on that Friday outside of Jerusalem was a cosmically significant event. We can look at the signs and hear God’s message:

  1. Sin is offensive and must be punished
  2. Jesus was our sin sacrifice. He endured the wrath of God for our sin.
  3. Because of Jesus we can move from darkness to light. We can live even though we die. We can become a part of God’s family.
  4. There is definitely life beyond the grave. It is possible not because of anything we have done . . . it is all because of Jesus.

This was no ordinary Friday. It was not your ordinary execution. Something powerful, something wonderful, something life-changing took place on that day. Max Lucado writes,

Six hours on one Friday. Six hours that jut up on the plain of human history like Mount Everest in a desert. Six hours that have been deciphered, dissected, and debated for two thousand years.

What do these six hours signify? They claim to be the door in time through which eternity entered man’s darkest caverns. They mark the moments that the Navigator descended into the deepest waters to leave anchor points for his followers.

What does that Friday mean?

  • For the life blackened with failure, that Friday means forgiveness.
  • For the heart scarred with futility, that Friday means purpose.
  • And for the soul looking into this side of the tunnel of death, that Friday means deliverance.

Six hours. One Friday.

What do you do with those six hours on that Friday?[3

That is ultimately the question we all must answer: How will we respond to what took place during those six hours? How do we respond to the One who died so we might be free? What do we do with all these signs that point to a turning point in History?

My prayer is that each of us will pay attention. I pray we will see the hand of God not only in the signs that took place but also God’s hand as it reaches to us through Christ. And I pray that we will not only see that hand . . . but we will take it and let it begin the process of leading us to a change that will truly be forever.

[1] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 623.

[2] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 624.

[3] Max Lucado, Six Hours, One Friday : Anchoring to the Cross (Portland, Or.: Multnomah, 1989), 168–169.

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